You called a chimney sweep out and received an estimate that seemed too high.
So, you called another company out for a second opinion. The second contractor provided
you with an entirely different scenario. So, getting frustrated, you called a third
company intending to get to the bottom of this confusing scenario. Now you have
three inspection reports that appear to contradict each other and they each seem
to arrive at different conclusions.
How do you decide the best course of action?
Any reputable contractor will be able to provide sufficient documentation to
support their estimate. Photographs of the issue in question are one of the best
methods of demonstrating the need for repair and to later demonstrate the solution
It is of utmost importance to choose a contractor that you feel comfortable hiring
to provide the work. Likely price will not be the most important factor in the decision-making
The Inspector’s Judgment
There are areas where the judgment of the inspector plays a role in the level
of information communicated back in an inspection report. Nearly every chimney in
America, for example, has missing mortar between the tile liners. Does this mean
that it is okay? Of course not. Does it mean that there is an immediate danger?
That question is not as easy to answer, we can only go by the standards in place
and recognize that the potential for risk is elevated. It is the inspector’s responsibility
to bring it to your attention and then allow you, as the homeowner, to decide whether
you are willing to take that risk.
Real Estate Inspections
Often conflicting inspection reports will come to light when a home is being
sold. It is typical for the seller to have a chimney inspected with the expectation
that everything is fine. The buyer then asks for an inspection and expensive repairs
are indicated. This is often when it becomes more difficult to define the right
and wrong of either inspection. As stated earlier, a chimney may be in ordinary
condition and be working well and still have numerous defects. In addition to the
missing mortar, there may be other issues related to the clearances that should
have been maintained, but are clearly not there.
Occasionally, the homeowner, without knowledge of the industry standards for
clearances to combustibles, may have added something to the house themselves that
is in violation of the proper clearances. For example, bookshelves on the sides
or rear of the fireplace are often added in living rooms.
In other cases, the hearth may not meet the required depth based on the size
of the fireplace opening. That fireplace may have been in use for fifty years and
was considered acceptable at the time of construction. Some inspectors will make
a note of this deficiency and others may not.
But is it “safe”?
Many homeowners really just want to know if the chimney is safe. Commonsense
tell us that a situation that involves combustion (ex: a fire in your living room’s
fireplace) should be tempered with the knowledge that it will never be perfectly
safe. Many things can go wrong. The inspector has no control over the operation
of the fire and many parts of the chimney structure cannot be seen without intrusive
or destructive methods.
Deciding Not to Use the Appliance
Other homeowners will be risk averse and want every detail repaired so they know
they have done everything in their power to reduce the risk of a chimney fire or
carbon monoxide intrusion. Others may adopt a more cavalier attitude and will not
be willing to acknowledge the inherent risk of using a combustion appliance. The
most important consideration is to make certain that the products of combustion
are contained in the chimney and are vented outside the home.
Because of economic issues some may elect to use their fireplace infrequently
and take that chance that the fireplace will not create a problem. In some instances,
a homeowner can elect to discontinue use of the fireplace until the appropriate
repairs have been made. Keep in mind that the flue serving the furnace will be used
any time that the thermostat calls for heat and the appliance kicks on. It is for
this reason that the furnace, boiler and water heater venting systems should be
considered a priority.
In some cases, it is relatively easy to determine when a fireplace is not operating
properly. For example, smoke stains above the fireplace opening are an indication
of spillage. The smoke spilling from the fireplace may happen infrequently or it
might happen every time the fireplace is lit. It could be the result of a flue that
is either too small, a chimney that is too short or has offsets or some other restriction.
Many homeowners expect a fireplace to smoke from time to time, which is why you
often hear “I just love the way it smells when I burn my fireplace”. This is not
a fireplace that is venting properly while the homeowner may think it is normal.
Most homeowners do not understand the details of fireplace construction and the
clearance requirements. That is why there is a need for
CSIA Certified Chimney Sweeps
to perform those inspections. The inspection process requires
much more skill than simply sweeping the chimney. Based on the individual attitude
and preferences of individual inspectors, it is quite possible to receive varying
inspection reports on the same chimney. Most importantly, CSIA Certified Chimney
Sweeps, as reliable professionals, should be relied upon to be able to discuss their
findings and present options in a way which will allow you, the homeowner, to make
an informed decision about your chimney.